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The dog-eat-dog world of the shows

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Foul play: Jagger, who collapsed after returning to his home in Belgium

Foul play: Jagger, who collapsed after returning to his home in Belgium

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A scene from the film 'Best in Show'

A scene from the film 'Best in Show'

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Foul play: Jagger, who collapsed after returning to his home in Belgium

The highly charged world of canine competition - and the scandal that can accompany it - is something, we believed, that took place far away from these shores. Not for us, the bitchiness and backstabbing so brilliantly captured in the American film, Best in Show, in which five dogs and their owners contest, in a ruthless fashion, the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show in Philadelphia. Such shows revolve around a vulgar clamour for big prize money, whereas on this side of the pond, there is Crufts - the show of shows and the largest in the world, but with a top prize of just £100.

However, the events now unfolding in the aftermath of Crufts 2015 hints at something rather sinister, a show that has become very different from what British dog-food salesman Charles Cruft had in mind when he organised the first one at the Royal Agricultural Hall London in 1891. Then, genteel owners paraded their animals in front of a quietly appreciative and knowledgeable crowd, who studied outlines and bone structure. It is fair to say that in modern times, Crufts has not been without controversy. This year, however, its fabled green carpets have been despoiled by a murder‑mystery more outlandish than any Hollywood script.

At the weekend, Thendara Satisfaction, an award-winning three-year-old Irish Setter better known as Jagger, died after allegedly being fed meat that had been laced with slow-acting poison before appearing at Crufts. Last night, it emerged that two Shetland sheepdogs, a West Highland white terrier, an Afghan hound and a shih tzu are also thought to have been poisoned, although these animals have survived.

They are the latest - and most shocking - in a series of episodes which hint at Crufts and other smaller shows becoming ever more of a dog-eat-dog world. In 1993, a prize-winning Italian maremma bitch, and star of a Pedigree Chum advert, was believed to have been fed poisoned beef at Crufts. In that same year, a puli reportedly had acid sprayed on its back at a show in the UK and a Newfoundland died after being poisoned at another British show. A few months later, a rottweiler known as Fernwood Fallon, survived after consuming - in mysterious circumstances at a show - a white powder containing rat poison and a sleeping tablet.

In 1978, some four decades before the demise of Jagger, champion Ukwong Adventurer, a chow chow, was found dead in his box at Britain's Midland counties championship, seemingly "eliminated" in the run‑up to Crufts after winning five Best in Shows in five months. Two other chow chows were poisoned at the same event, but lived.

Yesterday, the owner of one of the poisoned Shetland sheepdogs, Mylee Thomas, said she is convinced the animals were similarly deliberately targeted at this year's event. "I think it's driven by jealousy," she said. "It's rivalry, people's desire to win."

Many participants and breeders are equally candid about the harsh reality of competition. Aside from poisonings, other nefarious activities are rife. There are reports of immaculately coiffed dogs receiving a savage trim from person or persons unknown, just moments before their class; or given dye jobs to boost the chances of a rosette. Chewing gum is a well-known device employed to mess up a glossy coat.

Baroness Williamson, a championship show judge who entered her chow chow, Mamma Mia, at this weekend's event, is clear in her own mind about the death of Jagger and the other alleged poisonings.

"My opinion is that it is another competitor. I don't for one minute think this has been done by a spectator. Everybody who came around asked for the owner's express permission before giving the dog a stroke or taking a photograph. Everybody knows everybody in the dog world. If one [animal] keeps winning over another, then an owner may be minded to do something about it. Some of them are terrible. It is very political, in my opinion, and there are a lot of underhand things going on."

Despite the paltry prize money, Crufts is big business nowadays. According to Britain's Kennel Club, this year 22,000 dogs were paraded in front of some 160,000 visitors. A survey after the 2014 show revealed that visitors spent €42 million there and in immediate aftersales.

The ferocity of competition is driven by the number of overseas entrants, which has tripled in the past six years. A record 3,000 foreign entrants took part this year, almost three times as many as there were in 2009, much to the disquiet of some. The Irish setter category at Crufts, in particular, is hotly contested, with 372 entrants. Jagger was in fact co‑owned by professional breeders Willem and Aleksandra Lauwers from Belgium, and a couple from the UK, Dee and Jeremy Milligan-Bott. Mrs Lauwers has said that Jagger might have been targeted for being a foreign dog. "There's a lot of ill-feeling from some camps towards them, for some reason," she said.

In itself, co-ownership of a dog seems bizarre. Isn't that reserved for racehorses and Brazilian footballers likely to earn millions through their sporting prowess? Yet such is the reputation of Crufts worldwide that a winner can command thousands of euro breeding sought-after puppies from their winning dog long after the competition.

"A lot of people are earning a living by showing, and particularly by breeding, puppies," says Baroness Williamson. "If they keep winning, people will go to them for studs and to buy puppies."

However, breeder Jason Lynn insists that the sums involved are not astronomic. His poodle, Ricky, scooped the top prize in 2014, but the 36-year-old says it has far from changed his life.

"There isn't really an aftershock to winning Crufts," says Lynn, who was also an entrant at this year's event. "It doesn't suddenly mean you get asked to do a load of adverts for Gillette razors. But it is something you work your whole life for, and in the world of dogs it is priceless."

Sheila Jakeman, a veteran of the dog show scene, was present over the weekend and was also at the Midland counties championship in 1978 when Ukwong Adventurer died.

She still remembers the distress of the dog's handler, Eric Egerton. "The [three chow chows] were successful animals. Nobody knows what happened, but it looked like they were targeted deliberately," she said. "Eric said that he wished whoever had done it had just gone outside and slashed his tyres instead - he was devastated."

Jakeman, who has been a judge at Crufts but attended as a spectator this year, knows of cases where ear fringes are maliciously cut off before a show. "That can happen, unfortunately, and it can take six months for them to grow back," she says.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing investigations, this year will probably go down in Crufts history. Before that, it was the 2004 show that was the most controversial. On the eve of the event, leading figures in the canine world received plain brown envelopes from an anonymous sender. Inside, a viciously worded letter demanded that Best in Show judge Joyce Mann should be removed from her role. The author claimed Mrs Mann should step down because of the way she bred puppies commercially on her farm in the Seventies, a practice once perfectly legal but by then against the rules of the Kennel Club. Mrs Mann, despite the strong backing of many in the dog-show world, felt forced to resign. Her husband, Peter, also quit as chairman of Crufts.

Once the show got under way, a Doberman Pinscher named Kerri started shaking uncontrollably moments before it was due to appear. The dog's owner claimed at the time that it might have been slipped meat spiked with sedatives to knock it off "the top of the ladder".

Even bearing in mind the chequered history of competitive dog shows, Jakeman remains horrified at the latest poisoning.

Of course, the exact cause of poor Jagger's demise remains speculation for the moment. And as Caroline Kisko, secretary of the Kennel Club, says, many cannot believe that another entrant could have been responsible for his death.
"In all honesty, I think the likelihood of anybody in the dog world setting out to poison a dog is very small," she says. "We are very proud of our show. Everybody looks after each other's dogs."

That may well be the case for the majority. But some, it seems, are looking with malice in their eyes.

Irish Independent